By: Spencer Neff
January 31, 2020 | 4:30 PM
On Thursday afternoon, the racing community lost a great competitor and even greater friend. After a courageous battle with colon cancer, former driver John Andretti passed away at age 56.
Like his father Aldo, uncle Mario, cousins Michael, Jeff and Marco, Andretti made his mark across several disciplines of auto racing. As the racing world mourns his passing, Open-Wheels takes a look back at the career and lasting legacy of John Andretti.
Forging his Path
In 1986, the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-born Andretti made his first mark in big-time auto racing. Teamed with Davy Jones for the IMSA GT Championship season, the two raced their BMW March 12 to victory lane at Watkins Glen. Ultimately, Andretti and Jones would finish the year fifth in the points standings.
A year later, John followed his uncle and cousin to the CART PPG IndyCar World Series. On August 30, he made his debut with Curb Racing at Road America.
After starting in 15th, Andretti made his way up to sixth while Mario won that day. In four additional starts, it would be his best finish of 1987 – though he never finished worse than 11th.
For 1988, Andretti had returned to run 11 races with Curb. In that span, he notched a best finish of 8th at the Grand Prix of Cleveland.
Earlier in the year, John also qualified for his first Indianapolis 500 – where he started 27th and finished 21st, completing just 114 laps due to engine issues. Despite a violent crash at Pocono later that summer, Andretti returned to compete at Nazareth in his last race of the season.
1989 kicked off in grand fashion for John. In the 24 Hours of Daytona, he teamed with sports car standouts Bob Wollek and Derek Bell to take the overall win in their Porsche 962. Later that season, Andretti and Wollek won at Palm Beach.
On the IndyCar side of things, Andretti joined Granatelli Motorsports to make six starts in their Lola-Buick. In that time, he earned a best finish of 12th in the season finale at Laguna Seca. After a run of success with their sports car team, Andretti jumped on-board Porsche’s IndyCar effort for 1990.
Making his full-season IndyCar debut, Andretti tallied two fifth-place finishes (Cleveland and Vancouver) and ended the year 10th in the points standings.
In 1991, Hall-VDS Racing tabbed Andretti to race their Lola-Chevrolet. At the season opener in Surfers Paradise, Australia, they kicked off their partnership with a victory. Later that season, Andretti started seventh and finished fifth at the Indianapolis 500.
In addition to his career-best effort, it would mark the first of two times four Andrettis ran the “500” together. John’s cousin Jeff joined the fray that year, and was named Rookie of the Year. A week later, Michael, John, and Mario completed a family sweep of the podium at the Milwaukee Mile.
Following the 1992 season, John opted to pursue NASCAR, while also giving NHRA Drag Racing a try. In 1994, John and Byrd Racing teamed up with his godfather A.J. Foyt in a continuation of their 1993 effort at the Indianapolis 500.
This time, Andretti made history. With both the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 planned, he became the first driver to compete in both events on the same day – an event dubbed “The Double.”
Following his 10th-place start and finish at Indianapolis, John flew to Charlotte Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race. Despite starting ninth, crankshaft issues forced an early exit for the Hagan team after 220 of 400 laps.
By 1997, Andretti finally had reached victory lane. Holding off Terry Labonte in a one-lap shootout, John took Cale Yarborough’s team to victory lane in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
In 1999, Andretti was able to give another NASCAR legend a win as team owner at one of its most historic venues. This time, Richard Petty and Petty Enterprises went to victory lane with John at Martinsville Speedway.
Closing out a Career
Two years later, Richard’s son Kyle joined Andretti for another sports car effort. 15 years after his initial triumph at Watkins Glen, the two second-generation racers earned a victory at the famed New York road course.
Throughout the 2000s, Andretti competed across all three of NASCAR’s national touring series.
By 2007, he made his return to IndyCar with Panther Racing at the Indianapolis 500. Following 12 years away from the “500”, Andretti and Panther Racing would qualify 24th but crashed out on Lap 95 and ended the day in 30th.
For 2008, Andretti would join Roth Racing on a part-time basis. In five starts, John qualified a season-best seventh at Texas Motor Speedway – and earned a best finish of 11th at Iowa.
In 2009, Richard Petty Motorsports fielded a one-off entry at the Indianapolis 500 with Andretti behind the wheel. Despite starting 28th, Andretti completed all 200 laps and finished 19th.
For the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series season, RPM would join cousin Michael’s Andretti Autosport outfit. With the two teams joining together, John was able to run at Kansas Speedway and Indianapolis. Leading up to the 94th Indianapolis 500, Andretti finished ninth at Kansas Speedway.
With 2011 marking the historic centennial edition of the Indianapolis 500, the RPM-Andretti Autosport partnership continued.
In qualifying, John started 17th, highest on the grid for any of the team’s cars. Racing in what would be his final IndyCar event, Andretti finished three laps down in 22nd.
A Lasting Legacy
With his career behind the wheel drawing to a close, Andretti remained active within the sport of auto racing. From radio to charity events, John stayed engaged in the community at large.
In May 2017, Andretti revealed he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 Colon Cancer. Following his announcement, he initiated the #Checkit4Andretti social media campaign, encouraging others to be vigilant in the fight against cancer.
Last May, John’s son Jarett continued the Andretti legacy at IMS. Driving for Andretti Autosport, Jarett made his Indy Lights debut at the Freedom 100. After starting 11th, the third-generation racer completed all 40 laps and finished sixth.
Open-Wheels would like to thank John Andretti for his contributions to auto racing and his efforts in the fight against cancer. At this time, we extend our condolences to his friends and family.
Header Image By INDYCAR/IMS.